May the bittersweet tales from Price Lab School Health Office bring you both laughter and a few tears. The names of all characters have been changed, but the events are as factual as possible! Enjoy! (1978 – 1988)
It was time for my introductory session on human reproduction with the 4th graders. At this grade level I met with the boys and girls separately, to reduce the inevitable embarrassment as puberty and bodily changes were discussed.
On this particular day I presented to the girls the entire topic of menstruation. They were quite attentive as they looked at the visual aids I provided and listened to my explanation of the physical process. However, I did notice one student near the front of the room whose eyes were getting bigger and more fear-filled as the class moved along. When I finished, she closed her eyes and her blond curls bobbed as she turned her head repeatedly side to side with a definite “No!”
I invited questions, and saw several girls working up courage to speak. When none of them did so, I called on the dismayed little girl. “Do you have something you would like to ask . . . some concern?” She hesitated just a moment and then spoke, “Nurse Flemr . . . what I want to know is this . . . If this whole business does have to get started . . . well . . . can I just go to the doctor and ask them to just stop it for me for a while? I mean…you know…I REALLY don’t want to do this . . . and I don’t need to have kids yet.”
I returned to work after an out-of-state trip to assist my mother with his care. There was no doubt in my mind that I had made the last visit before his death.
I moved forward into the day, numb in spirit. While hanging up my jacket I spotted a note clipped to the message board on my office door. At that same moment children arrived in the health office for various reasons. I grabbed the note, placed it on my desk, and tried to pry myself out of myself, to deal with the needs of the kids.
An hour passed before I could return to my desk and open the neatly folded and carefully inscribed piece of notebook paper. The letter began, “Dear Mrs. Flemr, I realize this may sound odd coming from a 14-year-old ‘kid’, but I think I can understand your feelings now.” The note continued to offer assistance in listening to my grief at that difficult time, and a reminder that this would be available whenever needed. This caring young woman also wrote she would understand if I thought her too young, but assured me she wanted to be of help.
Several bottled-up tears rolled down my cheeks as I refolded the note and tucked it in my pocket. There was a palpable lessening of the ache in my chest and a deep breath was finally possible.
Dear friends, that was an Easter moment—when the extended love of another brought NEW LIFE.
May each of us rejoice in those moments when love extended unconditionally brings us comfort—and the ability to breathe deeply once more. And, may we have courage to reach out with the life-giving love—even when we fear someone might think it “odd.”
The phone rang early on Monday morning. “Nurse Flemr, please come to the kindergarten when you can. It is not urgent, but we have a situation with the hamster!”
Fueled by curiosity, I walked to the classroom and found 4 and 5-year-olds gathered around the hamster cage. Over the weekend Oliver (who had been sold to the teacher as a male) had given birth to a litter of eleven. That day Oliver became Olive.
Someone familiar with hamster care advised the teacher to separate the male and female babies since hamsters reproduce at a young age. My job—to “sex” the babies.
My knowledge of hamster anatomy was zilch! Nevertheless, I sat down with a nest of eleven, one inch long, pink, wriggling critters on the table in front of me. I immediately became discouraged with their diminutive physical structures and my face must have shown it.
That was when 4-year-old Eleanor joined me at the table. (You might remember her from my first tale). She always brought brightness, energy, and articulate conversation to any situation. Eleanor placed her hand on my arm and said, “Nurse . . . I can help you . . . I know the difference between girls and boys! You see, nurse . . . boys have . . .uhh . . . boys have . . . uhh . . . . well, uhh. . . . Short hair!”
Shorter than the window of my inner office, he approached unnoticed. It wasn’t until a 2nd grade hand placed a uniquely fashioned small piece of paper on my desk that I looked up from my work. There I found a boy’s unsmiling face, furrowed brows above large dark eyes. Displayed in his eyes—was it worry or fear—or both?
“Well, good-morning, friend,” I ventured. He did not respond—only slid the note closer to me. I glanced at the note and asked if it came from his father (whose name was Roy) and he simply nodded. I asked if he could tell me why he couldn’t swim, and he only shook his head. I suggested, “Maybe I should give your Dad a call and see if he can tell me about this?” He shook his head again, turned, and hurriedly left my office. I thought he had decided his self-written excuse was not going to work, and he would have to go swimming after all.
School nurses receive many student composed notes with attempts to be excused from various classes, but this was just about the cutest one I had ever been given. It brought much laughter as I shared it with his teacher and family. It was a note I kept in my collection to remind me of that amusing time.
Years later I had occasion to visit with a sister of this young man and we recalled the happening. I gave her the little note to pass along to her now grown brother. In our conversation I learned that her little brother had an experience with water that left him terrified. The experience lay behind his note writing.
Suddenly, I knew “the rest of the story!” The note that brought much laughter had deeper significance. I wish I could go back 35 years and talk with that precious child again. His note continues to teach, when I am quick to judge behavior without taking a good look at what might lie behind it.
A perfect “bittersweet” story…of laughter AND poignancy, as well.
School Nurses often extend their care to classroom pets. I look forward to sharing a couple ofthose critter happenings.
One such memorable encounter happened with Charlie, the beloved tarantula, on loan to the third grade classroom. Charlie was a lovely, big (3-4 inch),black, and quite furry spider . . . I don’t know which species of tarantula. The children learned about spiders as they watched Charlie crawl around among rocks and plants that filled his aquarium. They helped feed him crickets.
Early one Monday morning a student teacher appeared at my office door and asked for my help. “Nurse Flemr, it looks like over the weekend Charlie the spider died. He is curled up in a corner and isn’t moving. Would you come and uh—maybe remove him—and uh— talk with the kids about his death for a little while?”
I finished hanging up my coat and walked with her to the classroom. Children were arriving and gathered around the aquarium as word of Charlie’s demise spread. I told them I was sorry to hear about his death and that perhaps we could take him out, look closely at the wonderful creature Charlie had been, and could talk about what we enjoyed about Charlie.
I removed the top screen, swallowed my own trepidation, and slowly reached down toward the motionless body. As my hand approached Charlie, Teddy, standing next to me, called out as he pointed toward the other corner of the aquarium, “Hey nurse, Charlie is alive!” ( I can’t find words to describe how quickly I removed my hand.)
Sure enough, there was Charlie—or his twin—crawling out from behind a rock.There was a collective “WOW” at that moment.
That was the day I learned how tarantulas shed their exoskeleton!
I felt happy that day in my brand new outfit . . . so nurse-like and professional . . .
But then, she burst through the office door—a short round bundle of wet, wrinkled, sand-covered clothes. Her face was sweaty, her hair damp and tangled, her nose runny and her red-rimmed eyes streaming. As I turned in my chair to greet her, she launched her 5-year-old body into my lap. Between sobs she managed to say, “I fell off the monkey bars . . . I peed.”
As Lizzie settled in, I felt the wetness through my lightweight navy slacks. Her sandy arms and wet face pressed against my crisp white blouse. The odor of urine was strong.
A confession: At that moment I did not feel caring concern! I actually felt the urge to push her off my lap. Lizzie needed my arms around her in comfort, my encouragement to tell her story, my help in bathing and selecting some clean donated clothing from my closet. She needed a fresh start to her day.
Oh, I’d like to tell you it was my compassion that led me to do the things Lizzie needed—but, in my confession I must tell you—it was the universal love you and I share in this world. It is a powerful unconditional love, which strengthens us as we care for one another, when we feel inadequate or even repulsed.
Held for a while on my lap, bathed and dressed in fresh clothes, hair combed, Lizzie smiled broadly, ran out the door and yelled back, “Thanks, Nurse Flemr.”
I too needed some cleaning up as I reflected upon the morning miracle.
Ah! On that day I happily anticipated a wellness class with the first graders. I would address a favorite topic and share the technique of abdominal breathing for total relaxation. This would occur during their rest time which followed lunch and recess.
Picture this with me—a slightly darkened classroom where I stood amidst twenty some little ones stretched out on their backs. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata playing softly. (The first grade teacher had a marvelous practice of introducing her students to a “Composer of the Month.”). I thought she made a perfect choice for this occasion.
I began, “When you need to relax, you can do this with a special breath. First I want you to close your eyes. Listen to the piano playing. Now, just take a slow deep breath in through your nose. When you do that, make your tummy puff up like a ballon. That’s right! Good job. Now, breathe out slowly through your mouth. Do this again and again—in through your nose, tummy up, and then out through your mouth, tummy down.” I watched them take intentionally slow breaths, as Beethoven soothed us all.
“Pretty soon your arms and legs will be all loose like a bowl of spaghetti,” I continued. I felt affirmed by Stephanie, right in front of me as she sighed, “Oh nurse, this is nice.” Next to her, Jody whispered, “Oh, this is SO relaxing.”
There was a brief pause—when a short distance away I saw Jason’s whole body suddenly tighten—his fisted hands and straight arms down at his sides, his legs stiffened, his face grimaced with eyes squeezed shut as he loudly proclaimed—“This is RIDICULOUS!”
That is the day Jason taught me humility about the universal effect of my beloved relaxation methods!
She didn’t make frequent visits to the nurse, so I was surprised to look up from my desk and see second grader Beth limping through the door. Her disheveled long black hair framed a worried face with tear filled dark eyes. She held her skirt above one knee, exposing a bloody scrape. I led her to a small chair and gathered my supplies. Beth described her fall, her pain, and her need for immediate nursing care with dramatic detail and concluded, “Oh, Nurse Flemr, I do hope you can help me. I am afraid I might have cinders in my scrape.” I assured her I would carefully remove any found.
I pulled up another small chair (In those days, I took pride in being able to fold my six-foot frame into the small, but sturdy chair). I used gauze and warm sudsy water to gently clean the scrape. As I worked, Beth’s tears subsided and I did my best to distract her with mutual chatter.
After a few minutes, Beth asked, “Nurse Flemr . . . could you please tell me how you get that very white hair all mixed in there with the black hair?’ I realized she was looking at the top of my head as I bent over her knee. I explained, “Well, it just grows in there like that, Beth. As I am getting older I get a few more each year.”
Beth’s reply is one which will forever cause me to laugh out loud. “That is SO NEAT, Nurse Flemr . . . it is JUST like a skunk!”
The early Monday morning rush in the Health Office was over. I escaped to the faculty lounge and grabbed a cup of coffee. Mug in hand, I returned to my office and found 3rd grader Sandy on the couch. She sat with knees pulled up to her chest, arms wrapped around her legs, head bent over as light brown hair covered her face. I heard quiet sniffling from under the curtain of hair as I came through the door.
Putting my coffee on my desk, I sat down next to her. “Sandy, do you want to tell me why you are crying?” It was a couple of minutes before she raised her head for me to see red-rimmed blue eyes, full of tears and pain. “I need to go home right now, Nurse Flemr—right now.” I patted her shoulder and asked, “Can you tell me why you need to go home?” She whimpered, “I need to go home because I have a bad tummy ache.”
The usual questions for such occasions about eating breakfast, going to the bathroom, along with taking her temperature revealed nothing out of the ordinary. I asked, “You know, Sandy, I am not sure what is causing your tummy ache. Do you have any idea?”
Sandy looked up and replied, “Nurse, you see . . . I don’t think this tummy ache is the kind that causes a fever. I think it is the kind of tummy ache because my cat Buffy died on Saturday.”
After I swallowed hard and told her how sorry I was, I confirmed she was probably right about the cause of her tummy ache. Sandy and I talked a while about Buffy. She told me her parents got Buffy before she was born, but Buffy had been her kitty for eight years. She giggled as she told me about the tricks Buffy had done and how she slept with her every night. Sandy eventually returned to class having told me her tummy was getting better.
Oh, why is this simple story significant to me? Because I need, and perhaps you do too, the occasional reminder that our emotional pain often “comes out” in so many different bodily aches. May we each find courage to acknowledge and speak of the pain.